Digital Storytelling: Question of Authenticity

Media has allowed a digital participatory culture to emerge into and transform our daily lives. According to “Tales of Mediation: Narrative and Digital Media as Cultural Tools”, written by Ola Erstad and James V. Wertsch, media is used as a medium for “meaning making.” It is a way to perpetuate “participation culture” because it allows just about anyone with access to internet to interact with one another without even knowing an individual’s background (age, gender, race or location).

Public narratives (personal stories) have been given spaces to exist through a multiplicity of websites. Do you remember when Xanga was once one of the most popular blogging sites that people used to write their daily rambles or post pictures showcasing places they’ve been, people they know or things they like? Then, it wasn’t too long until blogging sites like Xanga became “old” and people moved on to even more updated, detailed, and participatory social sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.

Now, through the accessibility and affordability of both photo and video cameras, sites like YouTube have become means to tell stories for the the world to see. For me, this new freedom raises questions of a storyteller’s authenticity which leads me to raise an important question.

Does digital storytelling provide a space for people to be more real/authentic or a space that is simply another stage for their performance?

edit// Can anyone be truly authentic? Could it be that we are always performing a version of ourselves? If this is true, is digital media just providing a more obviously visible stage? 

Surely, digital storytellers are redefining their identities in front of the camera. The question is, are they redefining a genuine self or a faux self? For storytellers who strive to be taken seriously, are they displaying their true identity or a desired identity both which they cannot achieve outside of the digital realm?

Let’s contrast three stories—two that use similar informal structures, but has received vastly different responses from viewers and one that has a more traditional digital storytelling structure.

This young lady named Rosmery posted a digital story about how she was physically, emotionally, and mentally abused by her father and sexually abused by her cousin. Flipping through flashcards with hand-written short phrases, she tells her personal story. What is easily noticeable is her constantly changing face in the background. Overall, the comments( found below the video on the original website) proved to be encouraging and supportive, but there are also harsh comments questioning whether or not she is putting on a show with her faux tale.

This young lady’s name is Brittany. She shares her story in the same format as the previous girl—using flashcards. She, too, has her face in the background as she flips through the cards that reveal her story living with her mom who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Unlike, Rosmery, Brittany does not use many facial expressions except for occasional grins. There is incredibly positive feedback on her video. Many viewers commented that she was an inspiration who even led some individuals to cry after watching her video.

This woman”s name is Aurelia. Like Brittany, she admires and loves her mother, but Aurelia shares her mother’s story in a traditional digital storytelling format. It is essentially a slideshow of pictures and some  abstract video footage of her mother and the rest of her family. You can hear Aurelia’s voice narrating the story as a calm soundtrack plays in the background. There is a tone of sincerity in her voice. The music creates a comfortable mood. Pictures add a new level of evidence that brings her story to life more vividly than the other two videos above. It is a beautifully and carefully constructed piece, but interestingly it has not received any feedback/comments.

All of this leads us back to the same question we looked at before, does digital storytelling provide a space for people to be more real/authentic or a space that is simply another stage for their performances? As of now, it looks like it provides spaces for both. So, is this new medium of public narratives harming or benefiting our modern culture? Everyone is left to answer that question for themselves, just as every viewer is left to make the decision for his/herself whether or not they should believe, question or dismiss the storyteller and their story.


8 thoughts on “Digital Storytelling: Question of Authenticity

  1. oksana williams says:

    I really like your conclusion and controversy of the question that you presented “Is this new medium of public narratives harming or benefiting our modern culture?

  2. Andrew says:

    I can’t help but think of the work of Judith Butler or Jose Esteban Munoz’ book “Disidentifications”, which both challenge the idea of an essential, authentic, non-performed self. Are we not always performing our identities in one way or another, even off-camera? I think there are degrees to which one “acts out” a given persona, but I think it can be a slippery slope to try to label performances as inauthentic.

    • amandajslee says:

      Andrew, you make a great observation and analysis about authenticity in general. So, can anyone truly be pure and authentic? It seems that according to Butler and Munoz no one can. However, can there are also be varying levels of authenticity? Because I don’t think ALL stories are fabrications, although I have to admit that many people recall then repeat their memories/accounts inaccurately.

  3. stompingoneggshells says:

    Amanda, I’m glad you talk about people performing for the camera (and the potential for the stories they share–and the ways they are sharing– to be influenced by both the presence of the camera as well as the knowledge that they will be publicly sharing their pieces). I discovered, for example, that the girl who loves cats to the point of tears is an actress and that attempts to contact her by sending her feedback on the video only redirect you to a talent agency. The same was true of the “leave Brittany alone” guy. (you can see both in my post) Both of these videos had several million views because people thought they were sincere in their messages (and therefore, that much more interesting/crazy). Had we known that both individuals were working to bolster their resumes and foster a larger fan-base, it is unlikely that so many of us would have bothered to watch. They appeared to be sharing personal stories of caring/frustration as a result of the medium they chose. I wonder if our explorations and tinkerings with digital storytelling are following a similar pattern. Is our ‘authenticity’ in the digital stories that we will produce, as a result of having (minimal) academic training in this medium, somehow affected?

  4. I think Katie’s right that the “fake” videos would not have been as sensational if everyone immediately knew they were fake. But, conversely, it would be too much to say that “merit” or “quality” or “authenticity” or even some objectively evaluated “entertainment value” are enough to explain the popularity of any particular YouTube video. The viral nature of some videos and the obscurity of others seems to follow the strange, almost alchemical process that makes some people celebrities while other aspiring stars stay out in the cold – a thousand tiny factors working on a biased system, the fluctuating phases of public opinion, the flutter of a butterfly’s wing. As James Shickich pointed out in his talk at the PerpiTube symposium, there’s no way to “make” a viral video by combining just the right ingredients. And, believe it, people have tried.

  5. musinosusan says:

    The viewing of the three videos answers the question, people want to see the horrific rather than embrace the goodness around us. Reading others comments I have learned so much about You Tube (being new to this realm) that now will raise my radar quite a bit higher in viewing.

    I think your piece is well thought out and presents the information in a manner that demands of your readers to delve deeper into the nature of story telling.


  6. Tianyu Xiao says:

    Amanda, the first two videos you choose reminds of a heated video “Reasons to leave Facebook”, and they are alike in the form, and I just notice that in the Youtube age more and more digital storytelling videos are being similar inform, maybe people just get inspirations from others’video, and do one on their own, with different contents.And I also think such imitation affects the authencity to some extent, for they are likely to get influenced from the imitated ones.

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